The beginning of 2017 has brought a striking increase in violence to Tijuana, Mexico and the surrounding region, as competition between different criminal groups has put the key border city on a path for its bloodiest year since 2010.
State authorities from Baja California, Tijuana's home state, have reported that 208 people were murdered in the border city during the first two months this year, a potentially historic homicide rate that represents a vast increase over the murder rate seen in recent years.
While the government statistics agency has not yet published its final tally of homicides last year, reliable reports replace the figure around 700. Should the current pace be maintained throughout the year, Tijuana would end up with nearly 1,300 murders, an increase of almost 85 percent in a single year. Since 1990, the first year for which official data is publicly available, Tijuana has only surpassed 1,000 murders twice, in 2009 (1,118 murders) and 2010 (1,256).
The violence in Tijuana is driving a region-wide increase in killings. The local magazine Zeta recently reported 385 murders in all of Baja California from December 1, 2016 through February 22, 2017 -- more than 80 percent of which occurred in Tijuana. According to Mexico's National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica - SESNSP), across the state there were 129 murders in January 2017, an increase of nearly 50 percent from January 2016.
InSight Crime Analysis
The current chaos in Tijuana is the product of both short-term and long-term factors. In the latter category, Tijuana's underworld since 2008 has essentially shifted toward an equilibrium that is both more violent and more volatile than in years past.
From 1990 to 2007, a typical year would bring perhaps 250 murders. The city never experienced any wild swings that have since become typical; the highest total of during that period was 380 murders, and the murder rate fluctuated within a comparatively narrow band. Not coincidentally, this period corresponded with the hegemony of the Arellano Félix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel.
That group's collapse left Tijuana far more vulnerable. Since 2008, Tijuana's average annual murder rate has been closer to 700, and has swung wildly according to the vicissitudes within the local criminal landscape. Even during its most tranquil recent years -- it registered just 321 murders in 2012 -- there has never been a sense that any stability was enduring, but rather a fleeting moment of calm before the violence inevitably returned.
SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel News and Profiles
The long-term shift toward a more volatile criminal backdrop has combined with a handful of proximate causes. As InSight Crime reported in October, remnants of the Tijuana Cartel have joined forces in Baja California Sur, which borders Baja California, with the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco - Nueva Generación - CJNG), to fight the Sinaloa Cartel. This new alliance, which calls itself the Tijuana Cartel Next Generation, is likely battling the Sinaloa Cartel in Tijuana as well. This squares with recent reports that the CJNG has moved into Tijuana.
A report from Animal Político from December pointed to split between several local cells as the driver of the violence: one side called El Chan, El Jorquera, and El Kieto operate with the Tijuana Cartel; cells known as El Aquiles and El Tigre represent the Sinaloa Cartel. The same report also highlighted the increased presence of the CJNG in Tijuana.
In an interview with InSight Crime, Nathan Jones, an assistant professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University, pointed to US immigration policies as an additional factor, flooding the border with criminal actors.
"US felony deportations have had a disproportionate impact on border cities such as Tijuana, where the price to have someone killed was 2,000 pesos [a little over $100] in 2016," Jones said.
SEE ALSO: CJNG News and Profiles
Local authorities also attribute a huge number of the murders to the retail drug market. Because retail drug dealers are often used as proxies in larger cartel disputes, these reports are consistent with the versions that have the Sinaloa Cartel fighting to retain influence over a major border crossing against an alliance of CJNG and Tijuana Cartel forces.
It does not appear that the federal government has planned much in the way of a response. Zeta recently reported that 300 soldiers are on their way, a small number in such a big city, particularly when the primary challenge appears to be not hunting fugitives (something at which the military has grown quite adept), but rather pacifying neighborhoods (a labor-intensive task the military has never done as well, even with a robust deployment of soldiers).
Should this violence persist, Tijuana will need not half-measures but comprehensive plans of action that mobilize various sectors of society. According to Jones, who conducted much of his doctoral fieldwork in Tijuana and published a book on the matter, the concentration of the current violence has complicated efforts to build a response to the uptick in bloodshed.
"Much of the violence is between retail drug sellers and thus the business class has not pushed the state as they did in 2007-2010," he said.
This is unfortunate, and shortsighted. Countless examples from recent history show that disputes that originate among criminal rivalries can spill out of those boundaries and threaten the broader public, at which point getting control of the situation is a much more daunting task.